Best Books I Read in 2011 – Book List

Looking at this list, a few observations immediately jump out at me:

Deciding on rankings was very difficult this year. There are good arguments for, say, moving Persuasion up the list and bumping down Dune or A Wizard of Earthsea. And I had a difficult time deciding who would take the #1 position. It’s almost enough to make me get rid of the numbers entirely and just say, “Here! Here are the best 10 books I read, completely unranked.” Yet as much as top 10 lists are arbitrary, there is something interesting about picking one book and holding it up as my single favourite. Just beware that its position is not one determined with absolute conviction.

Honourable mentions:

As always, please feel free to comment over at my blog.

Reviews

10. The Mill on the Floss

by George Eliot

The Mill on the Floss cover image
ISBN:
9780140431209
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 704 pages
Published:
Penguin, 1860

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

It has been over two years since I read Middlemarch, a novel that propelled George Eliot to near the top of my list of favourite authors. With a keen wit and a deft pen, Eliot manages to lie bare the substance of rural English life in a way that allows her to comment on issues that matter to all of us. She captures those intimate but often uncomfortable truths about family ties; about love and courtship and marriage; and, as always in nineteenth-century England, about class and status and money.

Money plays a hugely important role in a lot of Victorian fiction, and The Mill on the Floss is no exception. That awful reversal of fortune that drives the plot comes in the form of a literal reversal of fortune: the family patriarch, old Mr. Tulliver, loses it all when he loses a lawsuit of his own devising. The Tullivers were, up until this point, a fairly respectable family: Mr. Tulliver was a miller, and his wife a member of the prosperous and highly proper Dodson clan. Now Mrs. Tulliver must suffer the shame of being “fallen” and bankrupt, her prize possessions sold and her husband struck down after a fall from his horse. The Tullivers enter dark days indeed, as we see from how these times affect their children, Tom and Maggie. Although money forms the backdrop for the conflict of this novel, The Mill on the Floss is really about childhood and the bonds between siblings.

Tom could be described as a typical thirteen-year-old: brash and impressionable and somewhat sceptical of his father’s intentions regarding his education. Eliot also paints Tom as a very serious boy, one who has a deeply-ingrained and perhaps unyielding sense of justice—or at least, a desire to see others punished for unrighteous deeds. Of course, as Eliot wryly remarks, Tom seldom if ever finds himself in a position where he must be punished! After the Tullivers lose their mill, Tom casts off the shackles of the premium education his father paid for and turns to learning business and bookkeeping, actually making some wise investment decisions that gets the family back on its feet. He really steps up, and watching him grow from a callow lad to a young man already displaying wisdom and restraint is a fascinating experience.

And it’s nothing compared to what we get in Maggie Tulliver. Where Tom is practical and, perhaps even more so than his father, traditional, Maggie is imaginative and unpredictable. She is almost a feral child, down to her impulsive acts that render her wardrobe and herself unfit for polite company. In one episode Maggie decides to rid herself of her bothersome hair. She is untroubled by what sort of ramifications her action has until Tom pans her new look:

Maggie felt an unexpected pang. She had thought beforehand chiefly of her own deliverance from her teasing hair and her teasing remarks about it, and something also of the triumph she should have over her mother and her aunts by this very decided course of action: she didn’t want her hair to look pretty—that was out of the question—she only wanted people to think her a clever little girl and not to find fault with her. But now when Tom began to laugh at her and say she was like the idiot, the affair had quite a new aspect. She looked in the glass, and still Tom laughed and clapped his hands, and Maggie’s flushed cheeks began to pale, and her lips to tremble a little.

Damn, but does George Eliot know how to describe the progression of a thought and a feeling so eloquently. Haven’t we all had such moments? Some of us might even have taken the scissors to our hair in an impulsive urge that resembles Maggie’s. Even if we haven’t, I’m sure we’ve all done something similarly ill-conceived, something that seems so appropriate one moment and then a horrible mistake immediately thereafter. Eliot captures not only those two moments but the transition between them.

This intense psychological portrayal of her characters is the hallmark, at least for me, of Eliot’s style. In Middlemarch she shows us how people’s misperceptions of marriage and other family matters lead them to folly. In The Mill on the Floss, she provides an impeccable perspective on the mind of a child:

These bitter sorrows of childhood! when sorrow is all new and strange, when hope has not yet got wings to fly beyond the days and weeks, and the space from summer to summer seems measureless.

Maggie soon thought she had been hours in the attic, and it must be tea-time, and they were all having their tea, and not thinking of her. Well, then, she would stay up there and starve herself,–hide herself behind the tub, and stay there all night,–and then they would all be frightened, and Tom would be sorry. Thus Maggie thought in the pride of her heart, as she crept behind the tub; but presently she began to cry again at the idea that they didn't mind her being there. If she went down again to Tom now–would he forgive her? Perhaps her father would be there, and he would take her part. But then she wanted Tom to forgive her because he loved her, not because his father told him. No, she would never go down if Tom didn't come to fetch her. This resolution lasted in great intensity for five dark minutes behind the tub; but then the need of being loved–the strongest need in poor Maggie's nature–began to wrestle with her pride, and soon threw it. She crept from behind her tub into the twilight of the long attic, but just then she heard a quick foot-step on the stairs.

I love how Eliot presents Maggie’s emotional state. So many authors write child characters who act and present themselves like miniature or merely unfinished adults. Sometimes this is excusable. Eliot is very deliberate in the way she portrays her children as child-like and undeveloped. She is conscious of how children differ from adults:

We learn to restrain ourselves as we get older. We keep apart when we have quarrelled, express ourselves in well-bred phrases, and in this way preserve a dignified alienation, showing much firmness on one side, and swallowing much grief on the other. We no longer approximate in our behavior to the mere impulsiveness of the lower animals, but conduct ourselves in every respect like members of a highly civilized society. Maggie and Tom were still very much like young animals, and so she could rub her cheek against his, and kiss his ear in a random sobbing way; and there were tender fibres in the lad that had been used to answer to Maggie's fondling, so that he behaved with a weakness quite inconsistent with his resolution to punish her as much as she deserved.

I promise that’s my last extensive quotation. I just want to give enough context and sufficient examples to accompany my praise of Eliot’s style, because that is truly what makes The Mill on the Floss so enjoyable. To be honest, even with her voice, this novel is still longer than I would have liked. There are moments when I was tempted to ask her to get on with it. But those moments were minor compared to my reaction to the book overall, not to mention the mounting sense of empathy I felt for Maggie as the book progressed.

I hesitate to juxtapose “George Eliot” with “feminism” because I’m sure that there has been plenty of feminist criticism of Eliot and her works, and I don’t want to juggle with loaded terminology. Suffice it to say that Eliot is sensitive to the status of women in Victorian England, and that sensitivity comes through clearly in The Mill on the Floss—along with what I like to think of as Eliot’s dry sense of humour. Tom is genuinely a good person, and loves his sister, but that doesn’t stop him from being a product of his time: he calls Maggie a “silly girl” (or “just a girl”) on several occasions. Eliot’s male characters often undervalue their female companions even as they praise them for their appearance and accomplishments. I can’t properly envision the reaction that her contemporary readers had, but as a twenty-first century reader I was constantly bemused by Eliot’s descriptions. She’s smiling behind her mouth as she writes about the weaknesses of her sex.

Nowhere does the gender inequity of the nineteenth century become more apparent than when Maggie returns from her outing with Stephen Guest. The Mill on the Floss has a love triangle too. Maggie and Philip Wakem have feelings for each other; unfortunately, Philip is the son of the lawyer who ruined the Tullivers, and he also has a humpback. (If I really wanted to go literary critic, I could talk about Eliot’s portrayal of disabled persons and reactions to disabled persons in the nineteenth century!) Meanwhile, Stephen Guest is the son of Tom’s employer, but for all his advantageous upbringing he is a shallow youth. He abandons his attraction to Maggie’s cousin Lucy and begins courting Maggie, who resists his advances. But Stephen persists, culminating with an unplanned boating expedition that results in their absence from St Ogg’s for several days. When Maggie returns to St Ogg’s, having left Stephen behind, she is censured. Everyone assumes she and Stephen had sex, but because they did not marry, she is now a fallen woman.

It’s a dilemma somewhat endemic to the Victorian romance. The mores of the time meant that it was inappropriate for an unmarried woman to be alone with a man for any length of time. Worse still, even after Maggie is “cleared of all charges” by the ignominious Stephen himself, she isn’t off the hook. Her reputation remains sullied by even a whiff of scandal. Though Stephen didn’t quite go as far as to assault her, Maggie is still a victim of his unwanted amorous advances, and the attitude of St Ogg’s people—women included—is nothing short of victim-blaming. It’s eerie how similar it is to the way some women get treated today, as rumours of their promiscuity turn into judgements of their conduct. It’s unfortunate how little has really changed in 150 years….

Anyway, Maggie emerges as the heroine of The Mill on the Floss—delightful herself even as she backs her way into what turns out to be a tragedy. The ending of the novel is as bittersweet as Eliot could possibly make it: I actually didn’t see it coming, but having read it now, I can’t see it ending any other way and still having the same impact. Eliot can change the tone of the narrative at the drop of a hat, and she never pulls her punches. The result is a novel that embraces the epitome of life itself, the highs and the lows and all the flat spots in between.

If Eliot were alive today, we’d be calling this literary fiction and showering her with all sorts of pretentious accolades. With the hindsight of 150 years we can instead be more sensible and merely call her one of the Greatest Writers of All Time. The Mill on the Floss is pretty much the literary fiction of the Victorian era. It’s a story of childhood, and of the bond between a brother and a sister. It’s a love story but not, perhaps, really a romance. It has tragic parts but is not, perhaps, a tragedy. Like all great fiction—all true fiction—it defies simplistic labels.

9. Of Human Bondage

by W. Somerset Maugham

Of Human Bondage cover image
ISBN:
9780749303440
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 700 pages
Published:
Mandarin, 1915

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

**N.B.** This one was difficult. I've done many things I try to avoid in my reviews. I talk at length about the ending (hence the spoilers), because it affected how my opinion this book so much. Also, I use several lengthy quotations, which accounts for most of the length of this review. Despite telling me I had 88 characters left, Goodreads insisted my review was 47 characters over the limit. You fail at math, Goodreads, but I have no choice but to submit to your regime of oppressive arbitrary character limits! So that's why you're getting this dull preface instead of the witty anecdote that went here originally.

Of Human Bondage looks daunting, but to be honest, it isn't all that daunting once you start reading it. Almost immediately I was reminded of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. These two books are similar: a somewhat (but not entirely) autobiographical story that follows a young man from boyhood to adulthood as he struggles with his attitude toward religion, rejects becoming a priest, and experiments with being an artist. Aside from the divergence later in the plot, the major difference I found between the two is that Of Human Bondage was easier to read. I know that many people swear by James Joyce's characteristic style, but I prefer W. Somerset Maugham's more straightforward, declarative prose. That does not mean Maugham is incapable of poetry. Observe:

Insensibly he formed the most delightful habit in the world, the habit of reading: he did not know that thus he was providing himself with a refuge from all the distress of life; he did not know either that he was creating for himself an unreal world which would make the real world of every day a source of bitter disappointment.

I love this quotation, probably because I identify with it so much! Preaching to the choir on Goodreads here, I know, but this is why I read. Books create entire new worlds for me to experience, sometimes as an escape or refuge but just as often for the novelty and enjoyment of being somewhere different. And yes, sometimes returning to "the real world" is a little disappointing. When I saw Maugham capture this sentiment so pithily, I began to suspect that Of Human Bondage and I would get along just fine.

It's curious how books like this can make us forget, or at least disregard, our foreknowledge of events—call it the strong form of suspension of disbelief. I knew, from reading the back cover, that Philip wasn't going into the priesthood, and that his time in Paris would be short. Nevertheless, during these respective episodes in Philip's life, I found myself desperately wishing for him to succeed. It didn't matter that I knew he was doomed; Maugham had managed to capture me and anchor me to the linearity of Philip's worldline. I forgot about what was going to happen and gave myself over entirely to what Philip was experiencing at that moment. Despite Joyce's fiery descriptions of Catholic visions of Hell, I never quite managed to sympathize with Stephen as he lost his faith. Philip's loss, on the other hand, is quite touching. At one point, when he's studying at Heidelberg and hanging out with an English Unitarian by the name of Weeks, Philip lets on that he believes non-Anglicans know their religions are false but somehow wilfully deceive themselves and others. Weeks convinces him this is not the case, and it precipitates a crisis of faith

"But why should you be right and all those fellows like St. Anselm and St. Augustine be wrong?"

"You mean that they were very clever and learned men, while you have grave doubts whether I am either?" asked Weeks.

"Yes," answered Philip uncertainly, for put in that way his question seemed impertinent.

"St. Augustine believed that the earth was flat and that the sun turned round it."

"I don't know what that proves."

"Why, it proves that you believe with your generation. Your saints lived in an age of faith, when it was practically impossible to disbelieve what to us is positively incredible."

"Then how d'you know that we have the truth now?"

"I don't."

Philip thought this over for a moment, then he said:

"I don't see why the things we believe absolutely now shouldn't be just as wrong as what they believed in the past."

"Neither do I."

"Then how can you believe anything at all?"

"I don't know."

Belief is a key part of Philip's journey of self-discovery as he flits from Heidelberg to London to Paris and then back to London. He is unable to stick with any one career; he proves to be a poor accountant and a lacklustre artist, so he returns to London and resolves to become a doctor. This is not his first choice, but he believes it will allow him to travel and see the beauty of the world—and it will provide income, something Philip will sorely need even once he reaches 21 years of age and can draw upon the small fortune of two thousand pounds left to him by his father. Money worries are a constant feature in Of Human Bondage, and Maugham is brutally realistic about what happens when one goes broke. Philip always believes something will work out in his favour, even as his finances slowly slip through his fingers.

The Parisian chapter of Philip's life is not my favourite part of this book, because it feels the most conventional when it comes to these types of narratives. Philip falls in with a crowd of gentlemen of similar status and mind, the kind of young men who are confident in their arrogance that they can recognize truth and beauty when they see it, that all the old masters except for their own list of exceptions are in fact overrated, that they will all one day do great things as soon as others recognize their greatness. This kind of airy, insubstantial boasting first appears in the character of Hayward when Philip is in Germany, but it is much more evident with Lawson, Clutton, and Cronshaw. We all go through this phase in life, where we talk about doing a lot but don't actually seem to be working toward that goal—and there's nothing wrong with this phase, provided you manage to escape it. Lawson and Philip seem to do this (the latter with advice from the old, bitter Cronshaw, who didn't get out in time). Clutton does not, and so he spends years spinning his wheels while Philip goes off to be a doctor.

Yet there is one redeeming feature of Philip's time in Paris, and that is the tragic tale of Fanny Price. Fanny befriends Philip, if you can call it that, offering him advice on how to improve his drawings even though she herself is hopeless at the art. She wears the same threadbare, mud-encrusted dress every day, and when Philip takes her out to lunch, she eats ravenously in a manner that disturbs him. Eventually, Philip arrives at her home too late to prevent her from committing suicide, and as he deals with the aftermath of this act, he learns just how bad off she was. Fanny was not just poor; she was starving. The brief moments of humanity between her and Philip were the only uplifting part of an otherwise oppressive life of poverty. But the full weight of this act only becomes apparent when Philip finds himself in a similar state and contemplates suicide as the only honourable way out.

One reason Of Human Bondage will leave an indelible impression in my mind is that it highlights the class differences that were very apparent at the turn of the twentieth century and are less apparent now. They still exist, but the twenty-first century is the great "everyone is equal" century, and we are told to subscribe to the myth that classism is dead and anyone can become rich if he or she works hard enough at it. My awareness of the extant stratification in society, and of my own privileged position in it, has been growing significantly of late. Of Human Bondage is just another in a long line of books contributing to this awareness—and indeed, this is why I recommend the works of Austen, Hardy, Dickens, et al, to my friends. The nadir of Philip's existence feels just as applicable to the present day as it would in his own time:

He cried a good deal. At first he was very angry with himself for this and ashamed, but he found it relieved him, and somehow made him feel less hungry. In the very early morning he suffered a good deal from cold. One night he went into his room to change his linen; he slipped in about three, when he was quite sure everyone would be asleep, and out again at five; he lay on the bed and its softness was enchanting; all his bones ached, and as he lay he revelled in the pleasure of it; it was so delicious that he did not want to go to sleep. He was growing used to want of food and did not feel very hungry, but only weak. Constantly now at the back of his mind was the thought of doing away with himself, but he used all the strength he had not to dwell on it, because he was afraid the temptation would get hold of him so that he would not be able to help himself. He kept on saying to himself that it would be absurd to commit suicide, since something must happen soon; he could not get over the impression that his situation was too preposterous to be taken quite seriously; it was like an illness which must be endured but from which he was bound to recover. Every night he swore that nothing would induce him to put up with such another and determined next morning to write to his uncle, or to Mr. Nixon, the solicitor, or to Lawson; but when the time came he could not bring himself to make the humiliating confession of his utter failure.

Then, just as Maugham is plumbing the depths of despondency, he throws everything into reverse. Philip goes for Sunday dinner to the Athelnys, and his friend Thorpe Altheny insists that Philip will stay with them until his situation improves:

"Betty," he said, when she came in. "Mr Carey's coming to live with us."

"Oh, that is nice," she said. "I'll go and get the bed ready."

She spoke in such a hearty, friendly tone, taking everything for granted, that Philip was deeply touched. He never expected people to be kind to him, and when they were it surprised and moved him. Now he could not prevent two large tears from rolling down his cheeks. The Athelnys discussed the arrangements and pretended not to notice to what a state his weakness had brought him. When Mrs. Athelny left them Philip leaned back in his chair, and looking out of the window laughed a little.

"It's not a very nice night to be out, is it?"

This is the most singularly heartwarming scene in the entire book. Philip's life has, up until this point, had its share of high and low points, but they have been rather procedural and standard for a young man finding his way through the world. His poverty is different—and its juxtaposition with this, an act of kindness and friendship, makes it all the more significant. The Athelnys are not beholden to Philip in any way; they just genuinely like him. Philip befriended Thorpe while he was a patient in the hospital, and now he is a family friend. Their kindness is a life preserver to Philip, and to the reader it's a signal that he is not just the uneconomical, infatuated loser that his relationship with Mildred makes him out to be.

I don't hate Mildred. I thought I did, at first, but hate is too crude an emotion to describe my reaction to her relationship with Philip. It's more accurate to say that I pity Mildred and lament Philip's blind infatuation. It is all too obvious to a bystander like myself that Mildred is bad road for Philip, that she is just going to take advantage of him until he collapses from exhaustion or until he rids himself of her for good. This is made explicit when Mildred falls for Philip's roommate, a fifth-year medical student named Griffiths. Still living with Philip, she breaks an engagement with him to visit Paris in favour of going out with Griffiths—and Philip, fool that he is, offers to pay for she and Griffiths to visit Paris instead. Yes, because that will make her love you, Philip. Bravo.

The way I write about it, and the way Maugham portrays their relationship, it feels somewhat soapy and shallow and melodramatic—but at the same time, it is scarily plausible. Philip is blind—first because of love, and then because of apathy and affection for the baby that Mildred has with her husband (who turned out to be married to someone else). This blindness makes it impossible for him to understand that Mildred, though she bears him no particular ill will, is indolent and utterly without scruples. She lives with him because he is, in her mind, a gentleman who can support her and her child—but she will not hesitate to leave him if this proves not to be the case. The fact that Philip refuses her offers of sexual favours confuses her, for she does not realize that Philip has moved beyond that point in the relationship. The changing way in which Philip regards Mildred is a useful metric for examining how much he has grown and matured: each time she reappears, he treats her somewhat differently, based both on his experiences with her in the past and on what has happened to him since she last left.

Philip's relationships with women in Of Human Bondage are various and complex. They almost defy description, some of them, but I will try despite my limited experience in this area. Of course, Philip's clubfoot presents him with some difficulties attracting women, but he manages to have several relationships nonetheless. It's possible Fanny Price was attracted to him romantically, but I interpret her interest as more practical than anything else—she saw in him a kindred spirit, a fellow artist who, like her, had few enough resources or prospects. Then there is Mildred, who flirts with him and enrages in him such a lust that he devises a plan to dominate her through indifference (that doesn't work out so well). Conversely, Norah loves Philip and treats him with affection and respect; Philip likes her well enough but, he casually admits, does not love her. This is a shame, because Norah was cool, and I wish she had showed up again (although that might have been awkward).

Maugham's refusal to surrender to something so trite as a romantic ending is peculiar but extremely gratifying. He is very frank about the way Philip's love for Mildred has warped his ability to form attachments to other women: he takes Norah's attention for what it is, but he is unable to return it in kind. Sally, the Athelnys' oldest daughter, develops feelings for Philip, but do the two of them fall head-over-heels in love and live happily-ever-after? No, and in fact Maugham makes it clear that Philip doesn't love Sally (as Philip understands love). We don't know if Sally loves him—and rightly so, for one never gets to know that about someone else. It's a matter of trust and faith as much any amount of certainty. Sally seems to be plenty enthusiastic about making love to Philip and affectionately calls him "an old silly", but then we get a passage like this:

Never a word of love passed between them. She seemed not to desire anything more than the companionship of those walks. Yet Philip was positive that she was glad to be with him. She puzzled him as much as she had done at the beginning. He did not begin to understand her conduct; but the more he knew her the fonder he grew of her; she was competent and self controlled, and there was a charming honesty in her: you felt that you could rely upon her in every circumstance.

Although the latest and least-developed relationship in Of Human Bondage, this is paradoxically the best and most profound of them all: it's messy and uncertain and ambiguous, just like real life. When Sally mentions off hand that her period is late, Philip resolves to abandon his dreams of travelling the world, accept an offer to become a partner in a practice in the south of England, and propose. He does this out of a sense of duty to Sally and her parents and not "true love"—yet when Sally reveals that she was mistaken, that she is not pregnant after all, Philip decides to propose anyway:

"I wonder if you'll marry me, Sally."

She did not move and there was no flicker of emotion on her face, but she did not look at him when she answered.

"If you like."

"Don't you want to?"

"Oh, of course I'd like to have a house of my own, and it's about time I was settling down."

He smiled a little. He knew her pretty well by now, and her manner did not surprise him.

"But don't you want to marry me?"

"There's no one else I would marry."

"Then that settles it."

"Mother and Dad will be surprised, won't they?"

"I'm so happy."

"I want my lunch," she said.

I confess I glanced at the last page before I started reading the book, and this exchange really confused me. (I felt like I had stumbled into that episode of Disney's The Weekenders where they see an existentialist play in which the answer to every question involves playing shuffleboard.) Once I finished the book and read the final page with the previous 699 behind me, everything fell into place. Its acceptance and endorsement of the quotidian and the mediocre is what makes Of Human Bondage an amazing book. I confess that I would be curious to see Philip and Sally thirty years on—has he had a change of heart, does he blame her for "holding him back" from travelling the world? (This is no doubt one reason it made me want to read Middlemarch again, for that book begins with the wedding and shows us what happens after.) While the idea that Philip and Sally "settle" for each other and Philip compromises his dreams might seem like a downer ending, I interpret its message differently. Philip doesn't "settle"; he merely finds happiness in a different avenue than what he had originally dreamed. It's a lesson not to let one's own dreams constrain one's field of choice, because there are many paths to contentment. I think, thanks to Sally's mistake, Philip finally forced himself to realize that his wanderlust is not the way to sate his need for truth and beauty. When she reveals she was mistaken, he has an opportunity to exit; he has no obligations to her whatsoever—but he doesn't, because his obligation was never the point. Of Human Bondage cautions us not to reject what might make us happy in favour of waiting to attain our wildest dreams.

This review is rather heavy on the quotations, I know, but I'm not sure of any other way to properly convey how Of Human Bondage encapsulates such a wide swath of the human experience. It is, to put it simply, amazing. Like Middlemarch and many of the other books on my "favourites" shelf, I will read it again to discover new insights and revelations. Unlike Philip, who sees no use in reading a book a second time, I know their secret. That's right, books, I'm on to you. I know how your unchanging text artfully conceals the fact that no two people ever experience you in exactly the same way, and that as a person grows and changes with the passage of time, the same text might suddenly offer up new lessons and messages (especially if you collect enough box-tops for the magic decoder ring). Of Human Bondage is that unfortunately rare combination of a "literary" work that is all-too-delightful to read and ripe for reading again and again.

8. The Dervish House

by Ian McDonald

The Dervish House cover image
ISBN:
9781616143466
Format:
eBook, 404 pages
Published:
Pyr, 2010

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I didn't want to give this book five stars, but Ian McDonald hacked my brain. I had heard enough about The Dervish House—my first novel by McDonald, incidentally—to be fairly confident I would like it. Yet it is not the sort of novel that inspires love at first sight; rather, it tantalizes, flirts, and seduces its way into your heart. It accomplishes this through McDonald's style, the way he describes the city of Instanbul, invites us into its streets and its politics and the eponymous apartments shared by the main characters, and oh-so-casually exposes those characters' hearts, hopes, and dreams. And as a science-fiction novel, The Dervish House is simultaneously subtle and ostentatious. The trappings that make it science fiction are all laid bare and obvious for the reader to see, but just as essential are McDonald's invocations of Istanbul's rich and diverse history, religion, and politics.

It's true that novels with multiple, convergent storylines sometimes have to work harder to earn my love. Yet I'm a little puzzled by the way others have interpreted McDonald's use of this device: one person remarked that "it may occasionally feel as if you’re reading six novellas that just happen to be set in the same city" while a far more critical reviewer says: "The different characters' path only crossed at the very end in a unconvincingly co-incidental way." (He also disparages how the technology depicted in the novel is "only a few years away", which makes perfect sense for a novel set in 2027—only 16 years from now.) This was not my experience at all; on the contrary, I felt like the various storylines interacted and influenced each other to an admirable degree. I loved seeing Ay?e's friend Selma Özgün reappear as a member of the think tank to which Georgios is invited. I loved that Can's investigation of the tram suicide bomber, along with Necdet's subsequent behaviour, helped Georgios formulate what he saw as the most likely security threat, far-fetched though it may sound. I loved that Leyla, Aso, and Ye?ar were hunting for half of a miniature Koran throughout Istanbul even as we, the readers, knew it was lying in Ay?e's antiques shop. I didn't love all of the characters equally—in particular, I found it very difficult to sympathize with Necdet after finding out why he had to come to Istanbul and live with his brother. Yet I couldn't imagine any other way of telling this story.

McDonald uses each character to explore a facet of Istanbul and what makes it such a unique place. Georgios provides a political and historical context, and as an old Greek man who has borne his share of discrimination by the authorities, he represents Istanbul's conflicted relationship with the diverse group of people who call it home. Necdet is McDonald's window into Istanbul's complicated relationship with Islam and the modern-day attempts to administer community-based justice. Adnan and his wife, Ay?e (who I'll confess was probably my favourite) are both dreamers and dealers, and they represent the modern merchants of Turkey: Adnan is the man with the connections, the power broker who buys and sells from both the East and the West, even as he plots to make it big; Ay?e, on the other hand, has her eyes turned towards the past, and she has her own big score to pursue. They are the most class-conscious inhabitants of the dervish house, for Adnan is aware that Ay?e "married down" to be with him, and part of his drive to succeed comes from a determination to achieve upward mobility through profit if not pedigree. Finally, Leyla and Aso give us a glimpse into Instanbul's role in the micro- and nano-revolutions. I'm not so sure how Can fits in, except that his role as the intrepid "Boy Detective" is essential to resolving Necdet's story and tying together the terrorists with Georgios' involvement in the security think tank.

So there you have it. If McDonald had tried to let one character or even a small ensemble cast carry the entire burden of Istanbul, then The Dervish House would have been a much poorer novel indeed. It's the multiplicity of voices, not to mention their variety, that makes this story a convincing microcosm of the city, lending credence to the idea that Istanbul itself is a microcosm of the world at large. Istanbul is synonymous with the idea of a crossroads city, but instead of merely telling us this, McDonald shows us in a first-class way, distilling the city and its history into a fascinating story. This is why Ay?e became my favourite character, for I was particularly intrigued by her search for a Mellified Man. Along the way, we're exposed not so much to a history of Istanbul as we are to an oral mythology surrounding the Mellified Man and certain tarikats of Islam. The question is never whether Ay?e will succeed in her search but what significance the search has on her own, personal understanding of Istanbul. She begins as the outsider, the sceptic who initially refuses to buy into the hunt for a legendary artifact—inevitably though, she dips her toes in the pond and the legend of the Mellified Man ensares her just as it has so many poor souls. I suppose I empathized with her, because this is much the same process I experienced while reading The Dervish House. It's an enchanting, entrancing novel, and I didn't enjoy it; I helped it take me hostage and use me as a bargaining chip. I went full Stockholm and held a gun to my own head while Ian McDonald negotiated with my parents for a ransom.

Fortunately, Ay?e's obsession proves, like mine, to be temporary but profound. It ends badly for her, at least at first, but her experience changes the way she thinks about antiques and about Istanbul. At first, Ay?e clearly loves the antiques she sells, but we get the sense that she is not truly as connected to them as she thinks. She used to be merely a dealer in antiques; she acquired items through her contacts and from other merchants, but the search for the Mellified Man is different. It is intense, and for some of her sources even personal. So Ay?e emerges with a better understanding of what the antiques she sells mean to some people; she adds to her aesthetic appreciation an appreciation of their emotional value.

The Dervish House is a very romantic novel, really, by which I mean Romantic. Just consider Georgios and his chance to see once again a lover from his youth, Ariana, who inspired him to become politically active—a path that would eventually saddle him with the guilt of betrayal and cause him to lose his tenure as an economics professor. While Georgios is debating whether to contact Ariana during her time in Istanbul, he is also participating in a security-oriented think tank led by his archnemesis. Georgios, an old man, is suddenly finding himself in a confrontation with the most volatile elements of his past. Or consider Adnan and his three friends. Together they are the "Ultralords" of the four classical elements, and they will pull off a scheme that will make them rich. Adnan might be a trader in stocks and commodities, but he is definitely a romantic: he views money and its exchange as a living, breathing organism, and he attributes his own success to the fact that the money "loves" him.

Moreover, McDonald has managed to unify technology (which we tend to associate with science, and thus rationalism) and romanticism here. Take Can's BitBots, a swarm of tiny robots that can assemble themselves into coherent shapes (Monkey, Bird, Rat, Snake) that Can can control remotely: Can wields his BitBots with all the impulsiveness, curiosity, and courage one would expect of a nine-year-old boy. Similarly, the nanotechnology that pervades McDonald's vision of 2027 is the ultimate technology of the romantic, for it allows unprecedented abilities: the enhancement of memory, of the senses, of the ability to experience and feel. And as McDonald demonstrates through Necdet, nanotechnology can even threaten what we believe, what we think, and who we are. This sinister theme lurks beneath the surface of the story.

Nanotechnology is the most obvious science-fiction device that McDonald uses in The Dervish House. He presents it without any fanfare; by 2027 it is just another part of life in Istanbul. Everyone has ceptep phones capable of displaying information directly on the retina, and it is common to sniff vials of nanomachines to enhance temporarily one's memory or concentration. McDonald alludes to the hypothetical apocalyptic endgame of nanotechnology, the so-called "grey goo" through out uncontrollable self-replication. But this is a novel about identity and personal experience, and so McDonald focuses on how nanotechnology affects individuals. With Leyla, Aso, and Ye?ar, we see that the ability to store information within the body's cells would be potentially revolutionary: as Leyla puts it in her pitch, we could have perfect recall of what we see, of conversations we have, of every moment of our lives. Yet McDonald juxtaposes this against a terrorist group's attempts to use nanotechnology as a vehicle for ideological coercion. He taps into a very fundamental question: if who we are is partly a product of our experiences, and if we gain the ability to control or alter our memories of those experiences, what becomes of the person we think of as "us"? Whether it's grey goo or a much more subtle effect, nanotechnology has the potential to end humanity as we know it:

What we are engaged in is a massive, unregulated and improvised experiment in reprogramming ourselves. The true end of nanotech is not the transformation of the world, it's the transformation of humanity. We can redefine what it means to be human.

Of course, we have been redefining what it means to be human for as long as we have called ourselves human. However, up until now, most of those redefinitions have been social, ethical, legal. We have reprogrammed humanity through social engineering. Yet just as our increasing familiarity with our genome and genetics opens the door to eugenics, viable nanotechnology would offer a new form of re-engineering, one that is technological and therefore much easier to direct and exploit. A lot of posthuman science fiction uses nanotechnology as a method for humans to transcend the limitations of their present form; in many ways, The Dervish House shows the beginning of our long road toward that posthuman vision of the future.

Although this is what I am taking away from The Dervish House, I don't want to create the impression that McDonald beats us over the head with Big Ideas on nanotechnology. McDonald wields science fiction in the best possible way, as a setting. Nanotechnology just happens to be a part of his Istanbul of 2027 (a part he chose to put there, because that's the "fiction" part of science fiction). It's the entirety of this futuristic Istanbul, and all the characters it enables McDonald to create, that brings The Dervish House to life. Unlike Troika, where there was a discrete moment when I realized I loved it, The Dervish House is more elusive. This is a book whose complexity blooms slowly, perhaps even shyly. It's something that one discovers. I didn't want to give this book five stars; I thought four would suffice. Yet four days after finishing the book, I'm still thinking about it, still turning it over in my head, and with each revolution I feel more confident that this is one of the best books I have read all year.

7. Sophie's World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy

by Jostein Gaarder

Sophie's World: A Novel about the History of Philosophy cover image
ISBN:
9780425152256
Format:
Mass Market Paperback, 513 pages
Published:
Berkley, 1991

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

"It's a bagatelle." These words have been knocking around my mind ever since grade 10, when the world's most awesome English teacher introduced me to Sophie's World. (For those of you not in the know, I'm referring to Ms. Sukalo. She also brought her remarkable energy and attitude to drama class, much to the enrichment of myself and my classmates. And she allowed a small group of us to form a lunchtime Shakespeare book club, but that is a story for another day. She's moved on to teach in New York. We still talk. I wanted to be a teacher long before I met Ms. Sukalo, but it's safe to say she showed me what kind of teacher I wanted to be.)

I confess that the fact Sophie's World is translated from Norwegian completely escaped me the first time I read it. This time, it was obvious—and I want to express my admiration for the translator's skill, for this is a work that relies more heavily on the nuances of language than most. Also, I originally didn't know how well-received this novel has been, both in Norway and elsewhere in the world, to the tune of being the #1 bestseller in Norway for three years. (Go Norway! Keep that philosophy alive.) For me, however, Sophie's World will forever be associated with the halcyon days of grade 10 English, and with everything it has taught me.

This book broadened more than my vocabulary: it taught me history, philosophy, even some science; and it made me think about the tenuous relationship between fiction and reality. Ever since reading it in grade 10, this book has been stalking me. Although my memory of the particulars faded, I recalled the title and the general premise, and with my penchant for philosophy electives in university, Sophie's World has always been quick to come to mind. A few years ago, this copy showed up in a box of books I acquired from a friend who moved away. It is a tattered and much-worn paperback: spine broken, duct tape obscuring half the back cover copy, the bottom left corner of the front cover completely gone, and the cover itself slowly peeling away from the spine. And that makes it perfect. I am never going to get rid of this book until it literally falls to pieces in my hands. And then I will go out and buy a brand new copy the very same day.

What is it about Sophie's World that holds me captive? Really, it's all there in the subtitle: A Novel About the History of Philosophy. OK, I suppose that for the average kid (or adult, for that matter), such a subtitle says nothing more than, "Walk away now." For me though, it's the equivalent of a flashing, neon sign that reads, "This book is made of pure crack." Sophie's World is unabashedly a didactic novel. I find this very appealing. Moreover, unlike many such novels, it also has an excellent story and a vibrant, wondrous protagonist. As Sophie Amundsen learns philosophy from her teacher, Alberto, we learn philosophy too. But we also get to watch Sophie, a 14-year-old approaching her fifteenth birthday, grow and mature as a person thanks to her experiences. By "mature" I don't mean "become more adult-like", because that is exactly what Alberto wants to prevent. Prior to receiving her course on philosophy in the mail, Sophie is like any 14-year-old girl, thinking about school, friends, her parents, and of course, turning fifteen. That all changes:

She had never thought so hard before! She was no longer a child—but she wasn't really grown up either. Sophie realized that she had already begun to crawl down into the cozy rabbit's fur, the very same rabbit that had been pulled from the top hat of the universe. But the philosopher had stopped her. He—or was it a she?—had grabbed her by the back of the neck and pulled her up again to the tip of the fur where she had played as a child. And there, on the outermost tips of the fine hairs, she was once again seeing the world for the first time.

The philosopher had rescued her. No doubt about it. The unknown letter writer had saved her from the triviality of everyday existence.

I love that last line in particular. Philosophy is neither dry nor dusty; it is far from esoteric. It is the means by which we can liberate ourselves from the quotidian and the ordinary and see what the universe is: a place full of continuous sensation and wonder. And life? Life is more than mere survival, more than the dreary daily drudge work of sleeping, eating, working, cleaning. But if one wants to escape that vicious cycle and be awesome, one needs to think philosophically. While an understanding of the history of Western philosophy isn't strictly necessary, it certainly helps.

The subtitle of Sophie's World is not exaggerating: it covers the history of philosophy—albeit mostly Western philosophy. (To his credit, Gaarder does mention Eastern philosophy several times, talking about Hinduism's relationship with pantheism and comparing Buddha to Kierkegaard.) Through Alberto, Gaarder covers the earliest Greeks—Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenedes, Anaxagoras—through to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, all the way up to the Enlightenment and Romantic philosophers and then the late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century thinkers of Marx, Darwin, and Freud. This is an incredibly powerful and compelling way to present philosophy, for it provides a sense of the provenance of philosophical ideas. We see how Socrates influenced Plato, and how Aristotle's interest in the natural world was in turn a reaction against Plato's obsession with divine forms. In particular, I loved learning about the impact of Greek philosophy on Christianity, including Augustine's attempts at syncretism, and the preservation of the Greek philosophers through the Arabs and the Byzantine Empire. Later, Alberto conveys the respective zeitgeists of the Renaissance, the Baroque period, the Enlightenment, and the Romantic period. It's a whirlwind tour but one that manages to hit all the right notes. As a grade 10 student largely ignorant of such history, it had a huge impact on me. Now I am more knowledgeable, but thanks to Sophie's mix of adolescent credulity and scepticism, it all feels new again.

Of course, any such survey is bound to be incomplete in some way. Constraints of the novel's length, as well as dramatic requirements of the plot, mean that Gaarder cannot devote equal space and time to philosophers who might deserve it. He has to gloss over the contributions of the likes of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, and Bertrand Russell. While Gaarder begins his history quite broadly, a comprehensive theme quickly emerges, centred around the question of the nature of reality and our ability to perceive it as it truly is.

As it turns out, Sophie's world is not such a straightforward place after all: Sophie, Alberto, and her entire world are in fact the creations of a UN major, Albert Knag. Sophie's World is a philosophical novel Knag wrote as a fifteenth birthday gift for his daughter, Hilde. The major scatters various birthday greetings to Hilde throughout the story: mostly they are in the form of birthday postcards, but sometimes he shows off. One time he writes them on the inside of an unpeeled banana. When this happens, Alberto likes to scowl and mutter something about bagatelles and how the major should be ashamed of himself for playing god with his creations in this manner. He then observes:

"…it is feasible that they, too, are nothing of the mind."

"How could they be?"

"If it was possible for Berkeley and the Romantics, it must be possible for them. Maybe the major is also a shadow in a book about him and Hilde, which is also about us, since we are a part of their lives."

"That would be even worse. That makes us only shadows of shadows."

Sophie then goes on to speculate that, if this is possible, then it is also possible that the hidden author behind Hilde and Albert's actions is himself a character in a book:

"Of course it is, Sophie. That's also a possibility. And if that is the way it is, it means he is permitting us to have this philosophical conversation in order to present this possibility. He wishes to emphasize that he, too, is a helpless shadow, and that this book, in which Hilde and Sophie appear, is in reality a textbook on philosophy."

"A textbook?"

"Because all our conversations, all our dialogues…"

"Yes?"

"…are in reality one long monologue."

Oh. I see what you did there.

As Hilde and Sophie's birthday approaches, Alberto and Sophie conspire to escape the book. Gaarder cranks the meta-fictional deconstruction up to 11 when Alberto and Sophie succeed at this goal. And there my spoilers shall end, because I want you to read the book and am only going to tease you by whetting your appetite for what will prove to be a wild and amazing ride.

I love this meta-fictional aspect of Sophie's World almost as much as I love how Gaarder encapsulates Western philosophy. This unique storytelling device is one of the reasons this book has stuck with me through the years; it has always been that "book where the characters escape from the book". Yet it's so much more than a mere bagatelle. Gaarder could have just had Alberto mention Berkeley's speculations and the possibility that we are all shadows on the cave wall, but would it have had the same impact? Putting these philosophical ideas into action, as it were, forces the reader to confront them and process them. More importantly, for the character of Sophie Amundsen, it offers hope—both the literal hope of escaping the major's control, but also a thematic escape from the expectations of society. Alberto does not sugar-coat his history. He doesn't hide from Sophie the misogynistic aspects of Aristotle and Hegel, and he laments the dearth of women in his story of philosophy—but when he can, he mentions those women who do play a role, such as Olympe de Gouges. So it is significant that Gaarder chose a young woman to be his protagonist. And with his meta-fictional escape plan, he empowers Sophie, saying, "Yes, fourteen-year-old girl, you can defy the expectations of your parents, of your teachers, of your society. You can be who you want to be, your own person. You can be a philosopher, and you can be awesome." I can't think of anything more uplifting than teaching a young person to think for themselves and question everything.

Sophie's World. Read it.

6. Persuasion

by Jane Austen

Persuasion cover image
ISBN:
9781593080488
Format:
Paperback, 243 pages
Published:
Barnes & Noble Classics, 1818

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This past Saturday I was Skyping with my friend Vivike, and I mentioned I had just finished Persuasion. Together, we pondered why Pride & Prejudice is the most popular of Jane Austen's work, despite the fact that some of her later efforts, such as Emma and, yes, Persuasion, are manifestly superior. We put on our literary snob hats and monocles and lamented the popular interpretation of Pride & Prejudice as a romance in the way we think about romance today, an interpretation that we feel misses the mark when it comes to perceiving that novel's true potential for greatness. And we condemned Colin Firth for reifying Mr. Darcy, an act that has very probably doomed us all to the feverish exclamations of women and men the world over: "Oh, Mr. Darcy!"

But I digress.

I have not always been a fan of Jane Austen, because I too was once young and foolish (and I still am in many ways). However, I have now seen the light; with each successive work, Austen impresses me more and more. And one day I will definitely revisit books I've read before—in particular, Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility—to see if my opinions of them have altered as my esteem for Austen has increased. Persuasion has done nothing to diminish her in my eyes, and it might be my favourite Austen novel. Perhaps that's because, as the professor who wrote the introduction to this edition insists, it is Austen's most "mature" work. I can't really speak to that; I'm not much of an Austen critic. Yet there are unique aspects of Persuasion that I find, well, persuasive.

Anne Elliot is indubitably the heroine of Persuasion, but for most of the book she is a minor character in her own life. Austen gives us privileged access to her thoughts, but we get to hear very little of what she says to other characters. Indeed, we're given to understand that she has very little influence at all; when someone does take her advice, it's usually because it only justifies the course of action he or she wanted to take in the first place. (But isn't that oh so true of life in general?) Anne's father and two sisters look askance at her because she is not as obsessed with social status as they are. When she learns her father, Sir Walter, is in some financial difficulty, she has no qualms about trimming their expenses in extreme ways, including but not limited to renting out their family estate. Also, Anne almost married a naval officer, Frederick Wentworth, eight years prior to the beginning of the book. It was a love match, but "fortunately" for Anne, the kindly Lady Russell persuaded her that love was not enough: Wentworth was not good enough. Thank goodness Anne didn't make that mistake!

For those of us reading this in the twenty-first century, it is all too easy to view Anne as the only sensible character in the book. We place her on a pedestal above the vanity of Sir Walter and Elizabeth, the preoccupation with precedence that plagues Mary, and the obsession with his inheritance that motivates Mr. Elliot in all his machinations. Anne is our class-defying heroine: she keeps up her connections to Mrs. Smith, who has fallen on hard times and is no longer respectable enough for a lady of Anne's status; she rebuffs Mr. Elliot, who is in every sense but character a perfect catch; and yes, she marries Captain Wentworth. This, after all, an Austen novel. And so it isn't as simple as "Anne = good" and "others = bad". Jane Austen, last time I checked, did not write Golden Age comic books. (Though, come to think of it, that would have been awesome.)

It's tempting to read Austen as some kind of incredibly subversive diatribe against class, but let's not go all Marxist on Ms. Austen's … err … well, let's not go all Marxist, shall we? It's true that Austen is very critical of some of her contemporary society's notions about marriage and how the quality of one's character relates to one's breeding. She is, we may go as far as to say, quite satirical, and it is this wit that often makes her books so enjoyable to read. Persuasion opens with an extended description of how Sir Walter spends his time: reading his own entry in the Baronetage of England (which is tantamount to someone spending all day re-reading his or her Facebook profile) and preening in front of his massive bedroom mirror. Sir Walter is vain in every sense of the word, concerned not only with his position in society but his exterior appearance as well. So Austen begins the book in fine form, mocking the emptiness that accompanies all those in the upper class who place style above substance. Or, as Mr. Elliot pompously confirms:

Lady Russell confessed that she had expected something better, but yet "it was an acquaintance worth having," and when Anne ventured to speak her opinion of them to Mr. Elliot, he agreed to their being nothing in themselves, but still maintained that as a family connexion, as good company, as those who would collect good company around them, they had their value. Anne smiled and said,

"My idea of good company, Mr. Elliot, is the company of clever, well-informed people, who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company."

"You are mistaken," said he gently, "that is not good company, that is the best. Good company requires only birth, education and manners, and with regard to education is not very nice.…"

I love how Austen so deftly alerts the reader, in so few words, to the obvious inadequacy of the runner-up suitors. It's almost as if she has all the unworthy men wear T-shirts declaring, "I am a gigantic tool." Ironically, Mr. Elliot has quite a bit more personality than Captain Wentworth, who always seems rather distant up until his passionate epistolary plea for Anne's heart.

Buried among the satire, however, are gentle hints that sometimes conformity is well and good. This passage of Anne's, from the penultimate chapter, is the most obvious such incident:

I have been thinking over the past, and trying impartially to judge of the right and wrong, I mean with regard to myself; and I must believe that I was right, much as I suffered from it, that I was perfectly right in being guided by the friend whom you will love better than you do now. To me, she was in the place of a parent. Do not mistake me, however. I am not saying that she did not err in her advice. It was, perhaps, one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides; and for myself, I certainly never should, in any circumstance of tolerable similarity, give such advice. But I mean, that I was right in submitting to her, and that if I had done otherwise, I should have suffered more in continuing the engagement than I did even in giving it up, because I should have suffered in my conscience. I have now, as far as such a sentiment is allowable in human nature, nothing to reproach myself with; and if I mistake not, a strong sense of duty is no bad part of a woman's portion.

This is an incredibly nuanced perspective. (I love it more every time I read it, particularly that phrase, "in any circumstance of tolerable similarity.") And this is why I wince when people refer to Austen's works as "romances" in the modern sense of the word; I feel like they are missing out on so much! Anne here is saying that she thinks Lady Russell's advice was wrong but that she was right in submitting to it, because that was her duty. Lady Russell was acting in loco parentis, and Anne is not such a stranger to propriety that she would disregard Lady Russell's advice just to follow her heart. Thematically speaking, that is: love does not conquer all; love tempered with reason and maturity conquers all.

So my interpretation of Jane Austen, if you will permit me such folly, is that she is neither a hardcore subversive class warrior nor a conservative champion of the status quo. She is a realist, dissatisfied enough with her society to mock it but optimistic enough to hope that some people find happiness even under the present regime. Marriage is Austen's microcosm for all these social issues, for she herself did not married, and she has her class to thank in part for that privilege and modicum of independence. And as I become more conscious of class, and of my own privileges and biases, I am more fascinated by how Austen chooses to write about her own time and her own life.

Of course, this is just a small part of Persuasion, and maybe not even the best or the most important part. It is so many things—among them, yes, a romance. Doubtless this chimerical nature is a reason for its everlasting appeal and its status as a classic. Of course, not everyone is going to like it, and I entertained myself by reading some of the hilarious 1-star reviews before I commenced writing this one. The common complaint was one of boredom, and I can't help but sigh. Maybe I'm weird. No, I am weird, and I like it. I find Jane Austen fascinating and exciting for the same reasons that I rock out to classical music, believe that science preserves our sense of wonder rather than replacing it with one of purposelessness, and dance like no one is watching even though people always are. Life is too short and too precious to spend more than an iota of it bored. So I try to find entertainment and edification in as much of literature's vast panoply as I possibly can, and while I don't always succeed, I will always make the most of it (even if all that means is a snarky book review).

Sure, Persuasion suffers from a conspicuous lack of zombies, or even sea monsters. And there are no massive CGI explosions. Not a single one! Curiously enough, Persuasion manages to step up, rise above these debilitating shortcomings, and deliver a worthwhile story of romance deferred and relationships rekindled. Go figure.

5. World of Wonders

by Robertson Davies

World of Wonders cover image
ISBN:
9780143039143
Format:
Paperback, 352 pages
Published:
Penguin Classics, 1975

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Yay, Ramsay is back! Not that David Staunton was a terrible narrator, but I will always, always have a soft spot in my heart for that irascible old teacher, descended from Scots and obsessed with saints. And now here he is, back to narrating the book. Sort of.

Although Ramsay is technically the narrator, he is consigned to the frame story, and Magnus Eisengrim (or Paul Dempster, back when he was from Deptford) takes centre stage. World of Wonders is notable if only for the fact that most of the paragraphs begin with an opening quotation mark, as the majority of the story gets retold via dialogue—almost a monologue, in fact, though there are crucial points where the listeners to Eisengrim's tale interrupt and interject.

The book takes its title from the carnival that abducted Paul on that fateful day back in Deptford. This event, combined with the interest in prestidigitation that the young Ramsay had awakened, would set Paul on the trajectory for the rest of his life. We get to learn what makes Magnus Eisengrim so different from anyone else, especially when it comes to his utter lack of a formal education and his ignorance of any culture or literature that is not Biblical. Much as various characters entered and exited the lives of Dunstan Ramsay and David Staunton in the first two books, each one shaping the narrator in some way, we see the effects each character in Magnus' autobiography have on his own life.

Yet I should not neglect the frame story. Ramsay explains that they are all at Sorgenfrei, Liesl's estate, to finish filming a biopic about the famous French conjurer, Robert-Houdin. Magnus happens to be portraying Robert-Houdin, and they determine that it would be best if he provides some subtext, in the form of an autobiography. Magnus is at that point in his life, Liesl observes, where he is feeling confessional, and so they gather around him to hear his tale. We hear an interesting life story, but we also get a meditation on the art of autobiography.

I think it's fair to compare the Deptford trilogy to the works of John Irving, in that both Davies and Irving tend to focus on recounting the lifetime of a single main character, subsuming plot to the character's own development. However, the Deptford trilogy is a lot more meta and self-aware. In Fifth Business and The Manticore, this is particularly obvious in Ramsay's discussion of saints and David's flirtation with Jungian psychoanalysis. Now with World of Wonders Davies focuses on how we perceive ourselves, and, in particular, how we tell our life stories. Throughout Magnus' confession, his listeners interrupt him to discuss not only what he tells them but how he tells it, how he portrays his younger self and how he editorializes the story. It just so happens—through one of those miracles of coincidence owing to an author's creative license—that the producer of the film, Ingestree, knew Magnus in one of his previous lives. Magnus recognized this the moment he saw Ingestree, but Ingestree only realizes it as Magnus starts telling his story. So we get a parallel account of parts of Magnus' life through Ingestree's eyes. Each of them potrays the other in a rather unflattering light, and each admits his own past self was an ass. Whether you wish to believe such contrition or choose, instead, to believe that each is secretly fuming at how the other portrayed him is ultimately up to you.

So the art of autobiography is ultimately an unreliable one. That probably isn't a big shock, but Davies does explore this theme in a masterful way. And he connects the main story and this theme to the overarching plot of the trilogy. Other reviews insist that the central question—the "mystery," if you will—of the Deptford trilogy is, "Who killed Boy Staunton?" I have to disagree, however, because I just can't get worked up about that. The Deptford trilogy is not a mystery series, and while the question is of interest to some of the characters, it's of little relevance to us as readers.

No, what I find more interesting is how the death of Boy affected the other characters: David, Ramsay, and even Magnus. In the coda to A World of Wonders, Ramsay broaches the question again as he, Liesl, and Magnus are having a nightcap in bed. They discuss Liesl and Magnus' roles, for Liesl was the voice of the Brazen Head of Friar Bacon that answered the question David shouted in that crowded theatre. Magnus was probably the last person who saw Boy Staunton alive, for Boy gave him a ride back to his hotel after Ramsay introduced them on that fateful night. And Magnus recounts what Boy said about Ramsay. I really liked hearing that, because it provided access, albeit second hand, to a narrative perspective we had lacked so far: the voice of Boy Staunton himself. Ramsay portrays him in an unflattering light in Fifth Business, and as much as I love Ramsay, he is hardly an unbiased narrator. It was good to hear another perspective on my favourite character in this series, especially one that suggests alternative motives for why Ramsay introduced Magnus to Boy and why he had kept that stone for so long.

Ultimately, the trilogy is not about answering, "Who killed Boy Staunton?," though in the end, it does answer the question. It is instead an incredibly intricate, interconnected telling of lives, love, and relationships. It has a subtext grounded firmly both in Jungian analysis and in interesting perspectives on the flexibility of art, autobiography, and education. Each book in the trilogy is amazing in its own peculiar way, and though I think Fifth Business remains my favourite, its dominance is by a small margin. The Manticore was a fascinating look at psychoanalysis and how our mind casts others as characters in our own stories. World of Wonders continues this autobiographical theme, always questioning its own premise for existing: that of a single, central character relative to whom everyone else has a mere supporting role.

This is the type of book where there are few passages I feel like quoting outright, mostly because they are not as profound when taken out of context, but I wish I could somehow distill the entire book into a quotation-sized passage for others to read. It's just that good, that essential—by which I mean, this trilogy conveys emotions and meaning that seem obvious when one encounters them, but that, until one encounters them in this form, might never occur to one at all. World of Wonders and the rest of the Deptford trilogy is a labour of love that in turn has taken on a life of its own. What Davies has done here is what literature should do, what it does best: tap into something deep, dark, and true about the human psyche and dredge it up for the world to see. He has exposed us, all of us to the light of introspection and critical thought. His characters are neither good nor bad but complex quagmires of passions, obsessions, recriminations and doubts; they are people, and through them we think more about ourselves.

I started re-reading Fifth Business because I remembered liking it. I had read the other two books, but they had not left as much as an impression. Now, having finished the entire trilogy for a second time, I cannot overstate my appreciation of it enough. This is a work I consider a truly timeless classic, and I am very glad I took the time to re-experience it at this stage in my life. In a year, or five years, or a decade from now, however long it is before I re-read it again, I suspect I will get something different out of it. I am certain, however, that its importance and significance to me will not diminish.

4. The Tombs of Atuan

by Ursula K. Le Guin

The Tombs of Atuan  cover image
ISBN:
9780553273311
Format:
Paperback, 160 pages
Published:
Spectra Books, 1971

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Damn you, Ursula K. Le Guin, for writing books that are so good, sometimes they hurt.

Like A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan follows a single protagonist over a long span of her life. Tenar, identified as the reincarnation of the First Priestess of the Nameless Ones, is taken from her parents at a young age. Her soul ceremonially consumed by the Nameless Ones, Tenar becomes Arha, "the Eaten One," and paradoxically nameless herself. She grows up among other priestesses and eunuchs. And she's a very bored girl. She goes through the motions of learning the ways of the High Priestess, sacrificing prisoners to the Nameless Ones, etc., but her heart isn't in it. Then one day, a wizard from the Archipelago shows up in the Labyrinth beneath the tombs, a place where only Arha is allowed to go.

This wizard is, of course, Ged, the protagonist of the previous book. I'm sure that if the entire book were from Ged's perspective the story of how he sneaked into the Labyrinth to steal something would sound a lot better; as it is, he comes off as a bit of a mysterious jerk. Yet Ged's arrival is the event that changes everything. Locked in the dark tombs with little light and precious little food or water, he does something that might seem meaningless to most of us, but to Arha, it is the most potent act possible: he gives her back her name. Taken from her by the priestesses, Ged divines it and utters it almost casually at a parting, and in so doing he returns to Arha her true identity as Tenar, setting her off on the path to liberation.

Now that I have re-read the first two books, it seems so obvious to me that the entire Earthsea series is about, among other things, identity. Generally, it is a world where identity is part of the fabric of magic: to know something's true name is to know the thing, to have command over it. In A Wizard of Earthsea, Ged finds out who he is even as he learns more about the gebbeth hunting him, a creature that almost is not. And thanks to his adventures and deeds during and after that book, he gets all these additional titles bestowed upon him—dragonlord, and the like—for which he never asked. It's the same in The Tombs of Atuan; if anything the motif is much more pronounced. Tenar's identity is stolen from her in childhood, and her relief to have it back came like a sucker punch to my gut:

It was not long past sunrise, a fair winter's day. The sky was yellowish, very clear. High up, so high he caught the sunlight and burned like a fleck of gold, a bird was circling, a hawk or desert eagle.

"I am Tenar," she said, not aloud, and she shook with cold, and terror, and exultation, there under the sunwashed sky. "I have my name back. I am Tenar!"

The golden fleck veered westwards towards the mountains, out of sight. Sunrise gilded the eaves of the Small House. Sheep bells clanked, down in the folds. The smells of woodsmoke and buckwheat porridge from the kitchen chimneys drifted on the fine, fresh wind.

"I am so hungry.… How did he know? How did he know my name? … Oh, I've got to eat, I'm so hungry.…"

She pulled up her hood and ran off to breakfast.

It is as if having her true name restored to her has re-awakened her entire being, given her a new life. Everything is fresh, more real—hence the hunger, the need for energy to confront this wonderful new world. Just like that, Le Guin smites us with a sense of joy that has heretofore been totally absent from Tenar's life.

A lesser writer might have ended the book after Tenar and Ged escape the Tombs of Atuan. Maybe there would be a coda explaining how they lived happily ever after, but that would be it. Le Guin, however, does not succumb to this temptation for the fairy tale ending. After they escape, their trials are not over. Tenar does not fall into Ged's arms, swooning over the hero who has rescued her from her spiritual imprisonment. Their journey across Atuan to the sea is slow, and at times it is as precarious as their time deep in the tombs. Tenar's trust in Ged is nascent and uneasy, made all the more difficult by psychic warfare on the part of the Nameless Ones. She comes close to killing Ged, but he responds to her only with kindness and reassurance:

"Now," he said, "now we're away, now we're clear, we're clean gone, Tenar. Do you feel it?"

She did feel it. A dark hand had let go its lifelong hold upon her heart. But she did not feel joy, as she had in the mountains. She put her head down in her arms and cried, and her cheeks were salt and wet. She cried for the waste of her years in bondage to a useless evil. She wept in pain, because she was free.

What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward towards the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.

This is why Le Guin is so awesome: even though she's telling us a story, a work of fiction, she never lies to us. She shows us the joy, but she also shows us the sorrow that accompanies it like shadow accompanies light. And she does not cheapen the significance of Tenar's journey—whether it's the freedom she has gained or the life she has lost—by trying to simplify, to pander, or to sex it up.

Speaking of which, re-reading The Tombs of Atuan, even more than my re-reading of A Wizard of Earthsea, has only increased my ire toward the Sci-Fi Channel miniseries. The whitewashing of the cast is regrettable, but now I have a much better perspective on how they butchered the story. The miniseries uses material from both of these books, but rather than connecting them chronologically, which could make sense, the miniseries conflates them. Ged's battle against the gebbeth is combined with his search for the Ring of Erreth-Akbe. But Tenar's story is almost unrecognizable: everyone calls her Tenar, none of this "Eaten One" business, and she's treated more like an uppity novice than any kind of reincarnation of the High Priestess. And as the series draws to a close, Ged and Tenar meet up and reunite the two halves of the Ring and bring peace, etc., and there's no crying. There is no significance to Tenar's journey—pretty much there is almost no character development, aside from Tenar's change of allegiance. There is no depth, and if Gavin Scott had ever encountered the word "nuance" before, he certainly did not bother to look up its definition.

I did not remember this book as well as I remembered A Wizard of Earthsea, though I'm sure I've read it before. So I began re-reading it with the expectation that it would be good but not in the way its predecessor is. Instead, I find myself adding a third Le Guin book to my shelf of all-time favourites, an honour I do not bestow lightly. But The Tombs of Atuan is just that good. It's more than good: it's beautiful and poignant and strong. Shame on you, Le Guin, shame!

3. A Wizard of Earthsea

by Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea cover image
ISBN:
Format:
Paperback, 203 pages
Published:
Puffin Books, 1968

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

This what A Wizard of Earthsea taught me:

  • To know a thing's true name is to know its nature.
  • Don't fuck with dragons (unless you know their true names).
  • Summoning the spirits of the dead is a bad idea, especially on a schoolboy dare.
  • Truly changing your form is dangerous, because you can become lost in the aspect you assume.
  • If you find yourself hunted, turn it around and become the hunter.
  • Above all else, know yourself.

I don't know how I acquired this particular copy of A Wizard of Earthsea. It's an old, 1977 reprint that is, aside from its yellowing pages, in remarkably good condition for something that, in its day, cost $1.50 in Canada or 50 p in the UK. It bears no evidence of a previous owner, be that person, library, or used bookstore. Perhaps someone gave it to me. However I got it, I remember that I read A Wizard of Earthsea for a second time through this copy. I read it mostly in the backseat of my mom's van and then in a hair salon while waiting for her to get her hair done. So this book is firmly ensconced in my mind as a book I read "when I was younger," and I associate it with my childhood (even though I suspect I was probably in my early teens).

When I first came upon China Miéville a few years ago, I was an adult and approached his books with an adult's ideas about fantasy. I've only ever known Miéville's works through the eyes of adulthood, and that is something outside of my control, but it definitely affects how I view his works. In contrast, Ursula K. Le Guin has been with me my entire life, stalking me, if you will. Curiously enough, her books have never played the formative role in my reading, especially my fantasy reading, that others like The Belgariad, A Song of Ice and Fire, or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy have done. I don't have a pithy story about reading a Le Guin book as a child or adolescent that then opened my eyes and inspired me to read more fantasy. So it's all the more intriguing that I distinctly remember Le Guin being in my life ever since childhood. I don't remember when I first read one of her books, only that I did. And when I pick up A Wizard of Earthsea, I'm connected to my childhood, to that memory of this particular copy, as well as to memories of reading fantasy in general. This is a gateway book, and that's why it means so much to me.

If you don't have this type of connection to Le Guin or to A Wizard of Earthsea, I can understand how easy it is to dismiss this book as a 2- or 3-star endeavour. It's a condensed story with a small cast of characters who aren't necessarily the most intriguing bunch you'll ever meet. There's a lot of narration and exposition covering most of Ged's childhood and adolescent years. It's not exactly the big-budget, epic type of fantasy story that is so popular now. Nor is Ged your typical fantasy farm boy Called to be the Chosen One. He's a wizard of no small talent who, because he's a cocky adolescent boy, screws up and spends no small part of his adult life attempting to rectify the mistake.

There's a lot of darkness in this book. It reminds me, this time around, of Arthurian legends: well-meaning, valorous people struggling against their darker selves, and sometimes losing. Even the Knights of the Round Table had the advantage of knowing they were heroes though—Ged is not a hero; he's just this guy, you know? He's not preternaturally gifted with good sense, so like any inexperienced adolescent, he makes bad decisions and is full of flaws. He ditches his master on Gont, Ogion, to go learn wizardry at Roke because he's eager to learn "real magic." He feels like Ogion is holding him back (we readers, of course, recognize that Ogion is the wise sensei who teaches his student the value of wisdom and work first). At Roke, Ged allows himself to be manipulated into magical pissing contests by his rival, Jasper. The result is the escape of a "shadow" into the world of Earthsea, and its encounter with Ged leaves it with some of his power and a hunger to absorb the rest of his aspect. This would be bad, for Ged, and for the world. But -A Wizard for Earthsea- shares with Arthurian legend that underlying motif of temptation and the sin of pride: people and magic continually tempt Ged, and his successes are measured in the varying degrees by which he overcomes and rejects those temptations. Sometimes he fails miserably, resulting in the unleashing of a gebbeth into the world! Other times, he succeeds admirably, such as in the case of the dragon Yevaud.

Ged's encounter with the dragon of Pendor is nominally what turns him into a legendary "dragonlord." He manages to learn the dragon's true name, and with it he wrangles from the dragon a promise never to fly to the Archipelago. The safety of the islands of Earthsea thus secure, he departs Pendor to resume his life and his apparently-eternal flight from the gebbeth.

Ged's confrontation with Yevaud is right out of the classical "man versus beast battle of wits" canon. What stuck with me for the rest of the book, however, was how Ged deals with Yevaud's brood. He ruthlessly does battle with these dragonspawn, killing six of them. Dragons in Le Guin's Earthsea are predators but intelligent ones: their speech is the same Old Speech from which Earthsea wizards draw power. So I can't help but feel that in slaying these creatures, Ged is wreaking destruction on a much larger scale. He's destroying something unique and wonderful, even if it is dangerous to humans. And Ged is rather cavalier about it: he goes to Pendor because he's decided to leave the town he was protecting from possible dragon attacks, and before he goes he wants to ensure the town will be safe. This is his first act of major wizardry as a full-fledged wizard, and it is interesting that it is one of destruction, even if it benefits those he swore to protect.

After his encounter with Yevaud, Ged bums around Earthsea for a little while, faces another great trial, and almost doesn't survive. Fortunately he finds his way back to Ogion, who sets him straight and gives him the best possible advice:

If you go ahead, if you keep running, wherever you turn you will meet danger and evil, for it drives you, it chooses the way you go. You must choose. You must seek what seeks you. You must hunt the hunter.

If you read A Wizard of Earthsea as a straight fantasy story about good versus evil and wizards and dragons, you will probably be disappointed. Read this way, it's a good book, but it isn't great. It's too brief to be a satisfying epic meal. The strength of Wizard of Earthsea is neither its style nor its substance but its -subtext-. This book embodies "literary fiction" a lot better than much of what gets marketed under that term today.

The cover of my edition, aside from its regrettable whitewashing of the characters, seems to support the idea that this is a children's book. The brief description on the back of the book continues this illusion: "A tale of wizards, dragons and terrifying shadows, in which the young wizard Sparrowhawk strives to destroy the evil shadow-beast he has let loose on the world." This description does not do the book justice, nor do I think calling A Wizard of Earthsea a "children's book" does any favours for the book or for children. This is not a children's book any more than other books that children or adults might read are "adult books." This is a book, a book for children and for adults, and frankly one that people should read early and often.

I read A Wizard of Earthsea as a child, again as an adolescent, and now I've read it as an adult. Each time, I've read it slightly differently, and it has told me different things; my opinions of Le Guin and her works have changed as my perspective changes from childhood to adulthood. For me, A Wizard of Earthsea is memorable and magical because of what it teaches through its story. It deserves five stars because, for a fantastic tale at a slim 200 pages, this book seems to contain an inordinate amount of truth.

2. Fifth Business

by Robertson Davies

Fifth Business cover image
ISBN:
9780140043877
Format:
Paperback, 266 pages
Published:
Penguin, 1970

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I do not like the cover on this edition of Fifth Business. I don't remember when I first read this book—definitely in high school, but I hate to say that it's now long enough ago I can't remember the exact grade. I didn't like the cover then, and I don't like it now. There is just something unsettling about the composite of faces. I interpret it as a representation of the various people we are, at different stages of our life and even simultaneously, an allusion to the Jungian archetypes that become more pronounced in the later books in the trilogy. Nevertheless, I just disturbs me. And I suppose I could have bought one of the newer editions, which have quite different covers, as I did for World of Wonders. Yet I got this for free from BookMooch—and besides, I won't judge a book by its cover.

The best way I can explain how I feel like Fifth Business is like so: it's the kind of book I have no trouble imagining as a movie, but I know that if one were ever made, it would almost certainly suck. (it appears that the rights were tied up in legal hell for thirty years). I just don't see how a movie could adequately capture Dunstan Ramsay's narration, and it's Dunstan's voice that makes Fifth Business so powerful.

Dunstan is not the sort of character one would imagine as the main character of a novel. (This is, in fact, rather the point of the title.) He lives on the periphery of the lives of other characters who seem like they are up to things much more interesting than anything he does. From the rich and powerful Percy Boyd "Boy" Staunton to the mysterious magician Magnus Eisengrim, Dunstan is a witness. This is obvious from the first scene of the book. A young Boy throws a snowball at Dunstan, and in an example of Boy's vicious streak, it has a core of rock. When Dunstan ducks, the snowball hits the pregnant Mrs. Dempster instead, an event that reverberates through the entire novel.

As a narrator, Dunstan is everything I enjoy. He's self-deprecating, but not to the point of whining or over-extending his attempts at humour. He passes judgement on his younger selves, but that judgement and his contrition are genuine, rather than smug or superior. And Robertson Davies made Dunstan a writer, which provides perfect justification for the clever, indulgent little passages like this one:

I thought I was in love with Leola, by which I meant that if I could have found her in a quiet corner, and if I had been certain that no one would ever find out, and if I could have summoned up the courage at the right moment, I would have kissed her.

Dunstan appears earnest and honest, confessing to his foibles—his childhood lust for Leola, his sense of responsibility for Mrs. Dempster's condition and Paul Dempster's new life—but one of the themes of Fifth Business concerns how we conflate myth and history to recreate ourselves. And so, Davies has gone a little meta on us and done the same with Dunstan as the narrator. As he recounts his life to the headmaster of Colborne College—the entire novel is actually epistolary—he is creating a version of himself, a myth of himself. We all do it, and that is one of Dunstan's points.

No character better exemplifies this than Boy Staunton, who might be my favourite character (other than Dunstan). In fact, Dunstan is at his best in his scenes opposite Boy. Though Fifth Business lacks an antagonist per se, Boy certainly serves in that role on occasion. He is a sometime rival, sometime ally of Dunstan, and they are friends almost as much out of necessity as out of any sense of kinship or fondness. Dunstan and Leola are Boy's last links to the village of Deptford, and I think Boy keeps Dunstan around for that reason.

Boy, of course, begins reimagining himself by dropping his first name, Percy, and shortening "Boyd" to the more youthful "Boy." He quickly corners the market on sugar and soft drinks and candy and graduates into the land of corporate tycoons who own fabulously rich companies that do nothing but manage other fabulously rich companies. When the Second World War breaks out, Boy goes into politics. He essentially becomes detached from reality, his vision of the world skewed by his own eerie success. Dunstan is the only one who ever attempts to talk sense to Boy, and that seldom works.

Dunstan emphasizes Boy's petulance. Of course, we shouldn't necessarily take Dunstan at his word, but this is what makes Boy one of the most interesting characters, and one of the darkest. He has climbed so high, but when he is finally re-united with the now-adult Paul Dempster, he falls. He has edited out any memory of ever throwing the snowball that led to Paul's premature birth, but deep down inside, he's still the capricious, spoiled boy. Just as Dunstan is a curious, serious, yet sometimes altogether-too-credulous boy who doesn't quite belong in our society.

Other than the narrator, the other awesome thing about Fifth Business is that it's short. This may sound like a surprise coming from me, a guy who loves doorstopper fantasy novels and recently complained that Liars and Saints, at 260 pages, could not do its multi-generational story justice. My copy of Fifth Business is only 266 pages—but in comparison, it is the autobiography of a single man. It is intensely, almost compulsively purposeful in scope; Davies fanatically reins in any attempt by Dunstan to comment at length about matters of world politics or history. The entire First World War takes only a single chapter, but it works for the type of story Davies is trying to tell. Unlike Liars and Saints, where I felt like I was marking time until the end of the book, every moment of Fifth Business is alive and full of potential.

I can't help it: it's also Canadian, OK? And not aggressively Canadian, like so much Canadian literature, nor politely and apologetically Canadian. But I feel that growing up as Canadian was an essential part of making Dunstan Ramsay the character and narrator that he was. From our immediate involvement in both the World Wars, to Dunstan's Victoria Cross, to Boy's bid for the Lieutenant-Governorship, this book is filled with aspects of Canadian culture. Fifth Business isn't just good, or great, or even simply amazing. It's an iconic book, one of few that I feel deserve the label of "classic."

1. Dune

by Frank Herbert

Dune  cover image
ISBN:
9780441013593
Format:
Trade Paperback, 528 pages
Published:
Ace, 1965

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Second review (Reviewed on February 12, 2011).

Dune is a classic because it tells a classic story well. It combines two plots that I love: a vast political intrigue with an intimate family conflict. The Atreides and Harkonnens are related by blood; their feud is a blood feud going back generations. Yet their battles are political in scale, using vassals as soldiers and spies in an interstellar chess game where the throne of the Imperium itself is within reach.

In my first review, which I crafted hastily one day when I added this book to Goodreads, I pontificated on the role of science fiction as a setting rather than a genre. Frank Herbert chose to set Dune far into the future and across the galaxy. There are spaceships, shields, lasguns, and of course, the all-important spice. Yet, I argued, this changes nothing. Dune is not a classic work of science fiction; it is a classic, period.

I stand by this, and while I do not want this review to be a rehash of the first, I want to elaborate further. It has been at least five years since I last read Dune, and I knew going into this reading that I would see it differently, since I'm now an adult, with more experiences and more science-fiction books under my belt. Though nominally science fiction and science fiction and fantasy in its setting, at its heart Dune is an epic, a tragedy reminiscent of ancient Greece and pre-Enlightenment Europe.

House Atreides and House Harkonnen are embroiled in a bitter blood feud, and now that feud seems to be coming to an end in the form of a political gambit by the nefarious Baron Harkonnen that results in the destruction of Duke Leto Atreides, his family, and his new fiefdom on the desert planet of Arrakis. Backed by the Emperor, the Harkonnens seemingly wipe out House Atreides and re-assume control of Arrakis, the only planet known to produce spice. Spice is a panacea known for its geriatric properties, but more importantly, it is the only substance that gives Spacing Guild navigators the prescient visions required to navigate through folded space. Without the spice, interstellar travel would be limited to relativistic speeds. Hence the oft-repeated mantra: whoever controls the spice, controls the universe.

Aside from the occasional mention of sandworms and spaceships and lasguns, this could be set in Tudor England or fifteenth-century France. The Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV does exactly what kings of old used to do; he pits his nobles against each other so they do not succeed in uniting to depose him. His downfall comes from underestimating House Atreides and the Fremen inhabitants of Arrakis who align themselves with the fugitive Atreides scion, Paul, also known to them as Muad'Dib. He becomes a messiah for the Fremen, a dangerous figure indeed, and in so doing discovers he has triggered a revolution he cannot fully control, even with his newfound powers as the Kwisatz Haderach, the culmination of a Bene Gesserit breeding program.

I paid more attention to Paul's role as a messiah this time around. When I was younger, I didn't fully understand the ramifications of this role. (I remember rejecting Dune Messiah the first time I tried to read it because "it seemed to religious"!) Thanks to the two Sci-Fi channel miniseries that rekindled my interest in Dune, these ramifications are much more obvious. They inform the rest of the story, acting as a pivot point around which crucial events revolve. Paul's role as a messiah accords him great influence, great power—but as a role, it also restricts his choices as much as his visions of the future does.

What's amazing is how close Baron Harkonnen comes to winning. Paul might have chosen to live out his days among the Fremen rather than win back his dukedom (and more), but he doesn't. Jessica even urges him to do this at one point, but it is clear the decision is less Paul's than it is the Fremen. They were set upon this path long before the Atreides came to Arrakis, back when Pardot Kynes and his son, Liet, commenced a centuries-long ecological transformation plan. They hate the Harkonnens perhaps as much as Paul does, are eager to raid against the Harkonnen forces, so they wouldn't take "no" as an answer; if Paul were to take the safe course, he would not find acceptance among them. Finally, Paul-Muad'Dib is their messiah, the Lisan al-Gaib. There are prophecies about him, and having demonstrated his authenticity as the messiah, he must fulfil them.

Above all, Paul states several times he rejects the "temptation" to take the safer path. That's how his prescient visions manifest themselves—as potential paths the future could take, always twisting and snarling and reforming as each choice he makes changes that vision. He sees safer routes, but these, he says, lead only to stagnation. These are the routes the Guild navigators take, which has resulted in the Guild morphing into a parasite on the back of the Imperium. Having acquired prescience, Paul sees the potentialities for the human species, and he realizes he has the ability to effect change. But he has to be careful, because to know the future is to become trapped by it, even as one changes it.

I guess I just have a soft spot for tragic heroes. I like watching heroes fall, because it reaffirms their humanity by the very fact that, despite their larger-than-life actions, they are flawed. This is important when it comes to Paul, because as the Kwisatz Haderach, he has become something posthuman, more-than-human. He is colder, slightly more divorced from his surroundings, because he is mediating both the present and the many-futures. It would be a mistaken to say he is disconnected, though, for it is clear he still loves and cares for Chani; rather, he is heavily burdened by his roles and responsibilities. We don't see his actual fall in this book, but the seeds of it are there—as Irulan says, every revolution carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. Herbert foreshadows the trials Paul will face: the uncontrollable storm of revolution; his increasing alienation from those close to him, like Gurney and Stilgar and even his mother; and of course, opposition from external forces, such as the Bene Gesserit and the former Padishah Emperor.

A great hero deserves a correspondingly great villain, and the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen certainly fits this description. He is an intriguing counterpoint to Muad'Dib. Like Paul, the Baron is depicted as somewhat inhuman, but in his case it's because of his obese figure and his profound cruelty. This guy has his nephew murder the entire house seraglio as a punishment for discovering his nephew's crude plot to murder him! He will stop at nothing to get what he wants, and his wants are many, varied, and perverse. His flaws, however, get the better of him. As a result of his overindulgence and his arrogance, the Baron ignores the real threat—the Fremen and their messiah, Muad'Dib—while spending too much time counting all the riches he'll have and plotting to make his nephew emperor. His downfall is as much his own as it is Paul's (or, as the case may be, Alia's).

So Dune has a great hero and a great villain. It also has plenty of morally-ambiguous characters who span the spectrum between. Jessica Atreides and Thufir Hawat fall into this category. Jessica was supposed to bear a daughter for the Bene Gesserit, who would in turn give birth to a Harkonnen son who might become the Kwisatz Haderach. They did not expect her, out of love for Duke Leto, to give birth to a son; they did not expect Paul's latent psychic abilities to come into full force through ingestion of spice. As a result of this act, Jessica irrevocably alters the Imperium. Though she claims she never regrets her decision, it is obvious that she struggles with her role as a Reverend Mother among the Fremen and how she influences Paul's actions. She is torn between being a mother and a Reverend Mother, between her son and her leader, her new duke.

Hawat is captured by the Harkonnens while still labouring under the false impression that Jessica is a traitor. Reluctantly, he works for the Harkonnens while seeking a way to destroy them. In this role as a captive Mentat, we see Hawat become trapped, unable to destroy his new patrons but unwilling to forgive them or abandon his desire for vengeance. His manipulations of the Baron and the Baron's nephew bely his supposedly tamed status, but he has lost some—perhaps even most—of his edge; he is broken, if not beaten.

I'm not sure what else I can say about Dune. It is a classic and a masterpiece because it takes a form and formula that are timeless and lays over this framework complex characters who struggle against each other and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Paul Atreides is a duke's son who becomes a desert fugitive, a reluctant warrior, and the figurehead of a revolution. Surrounding him are friends and family who soon begin to slip away, and enemies who underestimate him even as they plot to destroy his life and all that he holds dear. It's a story we've told time and again, but Herbert puts it in space, throws in some sandworms, and adds a little spice. Consequently, Dune stands on the shoulders of stories that have come before it, attaining its greatness because it is something both recognizable and unique.

First review (When Added to Goodreads, Last Read Pre-Goodreads).

Many people hear the words "science fiction" and run away in terror. They labour under the erroneous idea that science fiction must be some sort of fantastic space opera in which there are laser blasters, warp engines, teleportation, and all that jazz. Thanks in part to Star Wars, Star Trek, and the improvements of the special effects industry, science fiction is reduced that narrow category.

So what is science fiction? Science fiction is a setting, not a story. And no book better demonstrates this than Frank Herbert's Dune. Yes, Dune is set in the future (the distant future). Yes, there are spaceships, other planets (in fact, Earth isn't around any more), and bizarre things like prescience. But once you accept these and move on to the actual story, you'll find that it is an epic, dynastic tale of political intrigue. It's set in the future, but the environment is distinctly feudal. Frank Herbert incorporates a dazzling array of motifs, such as religion, drugs, ecology, rebellion, and prophecy.

Whenever I read Dune, I can't help but think about how big it is. The Dune universe operates on such a magnificence scope that it's hard to believe it came from the mind of one man. The story is timeless, because it is about the human condition: betrayal, love, murder, avarice--all of the characters exhibit the best and the worst of human emotions. In fact, Dune is devoid of alien intelligences. This isn't about humanity versus the Martians. It's about human versus human, one person pitting his or her intelligence against another. It's about the sacrifices necessary to achieve power or save a loved one.

Dune is a classic, a masterpiece of fiction, regardless its genre.